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Defending the Indefensible

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Defending the Indefensible

J

Economic and Political WeeklyMarch 24, 20071027learn in this collection of writings aboutwhat the author describes as a “lifetimefixation”. When he wishes to, he writeswith lucidity and elegance and his pub-lisher has produced an attractive and prac-tical volume, although one or two mapswould have been helpful. The separateessays, ranging from monograph length tonotes of a few pages, are not presentedchronologically but grouped under threeheadings: ‘The Background’; ‘India andherNeighbours’; ‘India and China: 1962and After’. And, as he notes, their varyingtone reflects the political climate at thetime of writing; “cheery and hopeful” inthe ‘bhai bhai’ years of the early 1950s,souring after the bitter humiliation allIndians of thepolitical class felt in 1962,and brightening in the direction of relaxedobjectivity in the 1980s.“The principal focus of this compen-dium of nearly a dozen essays [being]the long-simmering boundary disputebetween Asia’s two major land powers”(p 15), the reviewer naturally in turnfocused on that issue. In doing so hefound himself having repeatedly to re-readkeypassagesto tease out their meanings:it is as if Mehra at these points deliberately,or perhaps unconsciously, becomesobfuscatory.McMahon’s MapAn example is his treatment of the originof the McMahon Line (p 21), and thereforeof its legal standing. The key facts thereare that the Line was drawn by HenryMcMahon on a map presented to the Tibetandelegation to the Simla Conference at ameeting held in Delhi without the partici-pation or knowledge of the Chinese confer-ees. The Tibetan delegation conditionallyagreed to the alignment drawn by McMahonin red ink on a two-sheet map of a scaleappropriate to the purpose. That alignmentpurported to shift the external border of(British) India some 60 miles tothe northof where the Chinese claimed (and untilthat point the British had accepted) it lay,at the foot of the hills rising from theBrahmaputra valley. Their action wasimmediately repudiated by their mastersin Lhasa. In treating with the Tibetansseparately McMahon had breached hisinstructions – and also infringed Britain’sclear obligations underrecent treaties signedwith Russia and China. The Chinesegovernment repeatedly asserted that itwould not recognise any agreement reachedbetween Tibet and Britain without itsconcurrence. The viceroy, reporting toLondon, disavowed McMahon’s actions.3Other maps figured in the proceedingsof the Simla Conference, deployed as snaresand delusions in the trickery by whichMcMahon attempted to build a case sug-gesting that China as well as Tibet hadagreed to accept his new “strategic fron-tier”. Mehra’s references to those mapsobscure the fact of McMahon’s failure andcertainly would leave a reader otherwiseuninformed believing that the McMahonLine enjoys an inherent, if somewhatmuddled, legitimacy. Decades later theBritish took up McMahon’s effort throughdiplomatic forgery, production of a falsi-fied volume of diplomatic record: again,Mehra removes this as bureaucratic bun-gling rather than trickery.The historical evidence, long opened,makes clear that the McMahon alignmenthasno legal validity as a Sino-Indian boundary:in origin it was no more than the ephemeraltide-mark of a failed exercise in imperialexpansionism. (Years later, the British/Indian project of territorial acquisition was
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